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Electoral institutions and the cost of elections

To continue the topic in my recent DRC posts, Jay Ulfelder makes a great point about the difficulties poor countries face in holding fair elections.

I’m not suggesting that poor countries should forgo elections. The process is often expensive and messy, but it’s still preferable to the alternative of government by self-appointed rulers. Mostly, I hope the authors of electoral laws and procedures in poor countries will try to design systems that take these challenges into account. For example, why not hold presidential elections in one round instead of two, avoiding the costs and logistical problems of organizing runoffs?

… Not every country can afford every electoral system, and these financial and logistical difficulties ought to be a big part of the rule-making conversation in cases where they loom large.

Jay is bringing up an important, but often forgotten aspect in the study of electoral institutions. Despite not coming up frequently in academic literature, however, I will say that for the most part practitioners are very aware of election administration costs and system design.  There are a few issues, however, that I think we should consider when discussing this.

  • Institutions by nature are (and should be) hard to change. (Liberia just found this out the other week).   If a country makes a decision to create a one-round system, there is a good chance it will believe a one-round system is always the only way it should ever do something, even if the logic behind that decision no longer holds true many years later.  If we are choosing less optimal rules for the sake of cost, there may be long-term consequences down the road.
  • Along the same point about the durability of electoral systems, most countries already have a legacy with a certain system. This could make the debate over changing the rules somewhat irrelevant. That being said, many of the poorest countries only hold elections due to donor pressure, which means the rules should be a little bit more malleable than normal.
  • Political  institutions are highly endogenous to political actors; the case in the DRC is a good example. There will always be winners and losers when rules are changed.  Electoral systems should take into account the capacity of the country, but donors helping make such decisions should consider whether the political fallout from such changes would outweigh any benefits.

Why is decentralization still a silver bullet?

I realize there are plenty of development practitioners who are very aware of the limits of decentralization, but it’s still treated as somewhat of a silver bullet in the industry in general.  The recent election administration problem in DRC - where decentralization is one of the key goals of donors - is a perfect demonstration of what is wrong with this line of thinking.

The central government in Kinshasa can’t afford to move election equipment to its country and we think that dividing the country to 26 new states will make things easier?  How will each of those government administrations be able to procure election equipment for their local elections?

The short answer is, they couldn’t.  Unfortunately, donors often view decentralization as an end in itself, rather than asking what greater goal it should serve.

Elections in DRC may (will) be delayed

Via Texas in Africathis isn’t terribly surprising.

With just under three months to go until the polls are due to take place, Laurent Ndaye, a senior member of the country’s independent electoral commission (CENI), said equipment such as ballot boxes and voting booths were not yet in the country.

“We’ve proceeded to order the electoral hardware, we’ve paid for more than 70 percent. What’s posing the problem now is to transport all this material (to the Congo),” he said, adding that the kit was in China, South Africa, Germany and Lebanon.

The delays meant that materials will have to be flown in but the U.N. has refused to help so private firms would have to be contracted, raising the costs, he said.

In January, President Kabila’s allies in the legislature pushed through constitutional reforms that changed presidential elections from a two-round system, to a one-round, plurality vote.   Kabila insisted it was a cost-saving measure, although critics (not without merit) accused Kabila of simply rigging the rules to benefit him.  I think they were both right.

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